In Science News

As a kid I grew up with the American space program. It all started with Sputnik, and when JFK was in office, he really upped the ante in the space race, declaring that we would land a man on the moon by the end of the decade. Unfortunately, he didn’t live to see his promise fulfilled. From the early sixties through that moon landing, it seemed like we were constantly sending men into space (alas, no women at that time). First the Mercury, then the Apollo missions.

Then we switched gears and developed the Space Shuttle, the Space Station,  the Hubble Telescope and the exploratory missions to Mars, other planets and beyond the solar system. We’ve had successes and failures (Challenger and Columbia), but overall the space program has become somewhat less exciting than it was in the sixties. Maybe it was the novelty, maybe it was my youth. Watching big cargo ships lumber up to the space station just doesn’t seem as exciting as watching John Glenn orbit the earth, or sitting on the edge of my seat when Apollo 13 almost failed. Does anyone else yearn for that Wild West feel of the old space program, the sense that we were crossing boundaries we’d never see again?

Maybe that will change.

This past week NASA shot off the first test launch of the Ares I-X prototype rocket. Looking at the pictures accompanying this article about the test launch, I feel a small sense of the wonder and majesty I experienced watching the space program as a child. Seeing a new rocket being tested for future space shots is just a tad bit spine tingling, but I’ve always been somewhat of a science geek.

NASA is also working on a new vehicle to land on the moon again, the Altair Lunar Lander. This ship will be launched on the Ares V rocket, a few generations from the Aries I-X prototype. Right now they are shooting for a moon landing in 2020.

This might actually give the little boy in me a chance to re-live his youth.

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18 thoughts on “In Science News

  1. I remember during that first moon landing and exploration, going outside and hearing the whole neighboring echoing with that *beep* *beep* from the radio transmissions broadcast on tv. Everybody was watching it! It was a real unifying force in those days. I wonder if it would be that way now, though. Everything seems more fragmented these days.

  2. Oh, and those Gemini missions! The spacewalks! They brought tvs into the classrooms for that. Heady days, those; everybody was drawing spaceships. 🙂

  3. I suppose it has to do with perspective.

    When Sputnik went up it was like someone kicked open an ant hill. A woman in our building (we were stationed in Germany) went slap-dab apeshit, locked herself in the apartment, and was going to kill herself and her children because “The Russians will be coming down on top of us any day now, and there’s nothing we can do about it”!

    My teachers and parents turned their wrath upon me: I was a poor student and “see what happens??!! The little Russian kids STUDY and WORK in school, and they launch SPUTNIK, and YOU! You little…” apparently, the success of the soviet space program was all my fault. I have since been assured by people who were in a position to know, that my “little Russian” counterparts had nothing to do with the success of the Russian space program. Oh, the relief! It wasn’t me! I wasn’t to blame!

    There were others around who actually made sense of this whole thing. Another person who lived in our building was a HAM operator (as I am now) and we used to go to his place and we could hear the peepings of the signals, and some mornings, before dawn, he would take us out and you could see some parts of space craft and sattelites that were falling back to earth. They’d skip in and out of the atmosphere like a stone in a lake. Fascinating.

    When the first manned Ameican mission went up, they cancelled school for the day. We were instructed to find a TV if we didn’t have one, and watch it.
    Second mission, classes came to a halt, and they piped it through the school PA system.
    Third mission, they announced that it had happened.
    After that, look in the newspaper. Wasn’t even discussed in any science classes that I remember, at least not specifically.

    Due to my father’s position, we often had house guests who were newsworthy figures, and one of these was an old man who was leaving NASA. He was to be interviewed by congress and had to see the joint cheifs of staff and other security things.
    He had been one of Robert Goddard’s men, had been one who suggested to Dr. Goddard that they collaborate with this bright young man, Robert Truax, and the next day found himself (one among many, Dr. Goddard did not take suggestions or share, apparently) at liberty to go and work for MISTER Truax. They just weren’t gonna work for DOCTOR Goddard anymore.
    But he sat at our table, very unhappy with his reception from “we the people in congress assembled”. They treated him with amused contempt, acted like he was senile. The space program had been remarkably incident free up to that point, but he wanted a lot more invested in the safety aspents “now” rather than later.
    I remember his saying, “These people don’t seem to realise that what we are doing and what we are doing it with are extreemly dangerous, and one day we are going to HURT some of these young men…” I remember how distressed he was when he talked about it.

    My father-in-law was born in 1892, died this week in 1987. He was 94 years old. He’d actually been spanked on two occasions, (Once in school) for saying that men would fly, and walk on the moon. (In his father’s journal, his father deplores the fact that his son is addicted to that ‘blasphemous’ Jules Verne).

    He lived to see it, and more. A lifetime that started before there were paved roads outside of city limits to travel in space, living in space (well, Skylab, anyway…have the Australians ever really forgiven us for that?)

    He lived to see Halley’s comet twice, too. He talked about the madness of people during that time…

  4. Hope, fear, and complacency, that’s what’s inspired by this stuff. For some, it inspires hope and dreams of returning to the Moon and one day, manned missions to Mars. For others, it inspires fears of how such advancements might threaten their little beliefs, fears that funding such enterprises are needlessly wasteful and add to our nation’s debt, or something else equally silly.

    Once these things become regular though, like the Shuttle missions, then everyone just gets complacent. You all talk about the Apollo missions. For me, it was the Shuttle missions. The first launch, they brought tvs into the rooms. For the second, just an announcement and by the third, not a mention in school and most people didn’t even know there was a launch.

    Personally, I think our space program may be one of our most important programs. Its inspirational, but unlike some public works program like building a huge monument, it also yields other benefits like technological advancement. Mundane things of today like the microwave oven and velcro came from the Apollo missions, didn’t they? Anyway, I think for inspiring national pride, an achievement like going to the Moon or Mars is far more worthy than invading a country, and for just a general source of inspiration and hope, it also trumps faith in ridiculous beliefs like racial superiority, the power of crystals or a magic sky daddy.

  5. We had a neighbor who was also involved in the space program, although he went through the back door sort of.

    He was an airforce captain, had gone through OCS (they still had it when he went through) and he was a personnel officer. He had no college, and this was about the time that the military got the notion that if you were an officer and didn’t “have a degree” you would somehow forget the alphabet so it was imperative that you sit in a classroom somewhere for three nights a week “proving yourself” no matter what else you may have done.

    This man’s father had something to do with a brick refractory (he once remarked to my father that I should be encouraged in that direction due to my ‘refractory behavior’. Like my observation that I did poorly in school because he was such a good counter-intelligence officer, this was met by a cold, stony silence and glare.) he took courses in ceramics which he seemed to have quite a grasp on. His professor was invited to go to work for NASA but declined, named several of his students as at least as knowledgeable as him.

    They came up to our neighbor, informed him that he was being transferred, and what his new duties and conditions would be. He demurred. He had this problem with doing all the donkey work of all the hours Providence sends, while others reaped the professional benefits. He said he’d talked to NASA, and spoke then to his superiors in the airforce, told them that he had a better offer, would be resigning his commission, and running the shop at about three times the pay with none of the restrictions. They actually made him a full colonel to keep a military man in that spot, and met every one of his other requests.

    Later, the ‘civilian side’ got to be an equally big pain in the ass, so he resigned, became an independent consultant, and REALLY cleaned house.

    Last time I saw him was ten years ago at my father’s funeral, we talked about it, and I mentioned that getting a degree had worked out for him after all.

    He laughed and said, “Y’know what? I never GOT a degree, and STILL don’t have one”!

  6. And don’t forget the ever disgusting grapefruit Tang. My dad drank hot Tang in the morning when we were camping. He claimed it was delicious.

    Then again, he was a Marine for a while, so . . .

    I remember our entire school basically shutting down for the first space shuttle launch. Very exciting. The science teachers integrated space into just about every lesson.

    Then silence. Until Challenger. I missed the Challenger launch (I was in surgery that day and woke up to see the disaster).

    I think the big change was that NASA got away from discovery and exploration and decided to concentrate on just the machinery.

    Of course, now we have a thousand communication satellites up there and can beam Ishtar to any nation on earth. I guess that’s a plus.

  7. My class went to the school library (which had the only TV in my elementary school, at the time) to watch the Challenger takeoff.
    Another time, for reasons I still can’t fathom, our class got to watch the long version of Jackson’s Thriller.

    It’s funny the things you remember.

  8. My daddy was a rocket scientist (I grew up in Huntsville, AL). He worked on Saturn V and the initial design of the space shuttle. His hero was Verner Von Braun; we used to have an autographed photo of him in our dining room. (As an adult I read about his Nazi background but I never got a chance to discuss that aspect with my dad.) I was also raised Catholic; funny that the science stuff took but not the religion.

    Science: It works, bitches!

    Well, maybe not.

  9. I was in elementary school throughout the Apollo missions. Everyone in my school assembled in the auditorium to watch launches and splashdowns on two TVs with screens about 20-25 inches. We were fascinated with the space program. Everyone wanted to be an astronaut.

  10. Fuck… I share your enthusiasm about the new work, but why the hell we haven’t had a moon base for 15 years is a question that just kills me.

    Now it looks like there is probably a water source there, meaning it could have been self-sufficient. We should have been looking at a possible Mars base by 2020.

    Oh, wait, isn’t the world going to end again that year? It *does* have one of those apocalyptic sounding names – Twenty Twenty!! Scary.

  11. ildi: We’ve been to the Space Fight Center in the 70’s and I rememvber there was a MacDonald’s in town that was actually a moon scape with all kinds of space themed things. Since the “Great Homoginization” that the corporatocracy has imposed, I wonder if it’s still that way…

  12. I know a Dr. Carl Gotzmer. I met him because he makes a very nice dulcimer, and didn’t know about his day job until later.

    He was in charge of designing explosives and fuel for NASA and the navy, and he was in charge of the fuel for the space shuttle. Makes quite a ‘footprint’ when the shuttle goes up.

    About ten years ago he told me that they had a fuel that was completely non toxic, you could actually drink the liquid that the exhaust condensed to…all they had to do was figure out how to make it for less than the $8000.00 per gram that it cost to make when we spoke about it.

  13. You all know very well that man never landed on the moon. How do I know? Because my mother-in-law explained it all to me…God gave man dominion over the earth, not the moon. If man HAD travelled to the moon, he would have been beyond the scope of God’s influence, and life as we know it would have ceased to exist. Therefore, since we’re all still here, man never went to the moon. Yeah. Fundies trying to use logic. It would be funny if it weren’t so painful.

  14. Oh, yeah, I had a friend’s fundie mother go on and on about the moon landing being a hoax; I didn’t realize there could have been a religious reason behind it (though I guess I should have, come to think).

    I tried to be polite about it as long as I could, then finally asked her if she thought my father the rocket scientist was in on the hoax or not… funny how when people talk about the hoax “they” are perpetuating, they never think of the fact that the “they” includes hundreds of working joes who would have to be in on it, too.

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